The new Napster To Go music service, despite inevitable first-generation headaches and drawbacks, still takes a big step toward the long-awaited celestial jukebox.
The new Napster To Go music service, despite inevitable first-generation headaches and drawbacks, still takes a big step toward the long-awaited celestial jukebox, the dream of having access to all the world’s recorded music anywhere, anytime, at a reasonable price.
Napster To Go (www.napster.com), at $14.95 a month, offers “portability,” the right to download as much music as you can cram into a portable player. You can listen as often as you want, as long as you keep up your Napster To Go subscription.
It’s a great deal. For what it would cost to buy about one CD a month, you can build a library of dozens or even hundreds of albums. You can carry these albums in your pocket, listening through headphones, or connect your player to a home stereo whenever you throw a party.
You can explore new artists and releases without committing to buy music you might not like.
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Napster and its competitors have a catalog of about 1 million songs available from all the major labels and just about every major artist.
For the past several years, I’ve been periodically testing the legal download services by checking to see what they offer from Billboard magazine’s listings of the top 10 singles and top 10 albums (www.billboard.com). I got a perfect score recently for the first time: Napster offered all 20 titles from Billboard’s March 12 list.
Napster To Go
For $14 a month Napster’s new music service allows you to download as much music as you want to your computer or MP3 player.
So there’s lots to choose from with Napster To Go. Here’s how it works:
Napster operates an online music store, similar to Apple Computer’s much more popular iTunes Music Store (www.apple.com/itunes), where you can buy most songs for 99 cents each and most albums for $9.99. Songs from Napster are downloaded to your computer’s hard drive, where you can listen to them indefinitely. You also can burn the purchased tracks to CD and listen to them in any CD player.
Moving beyond iTunes, Napster has a subscription service for $9.95 a month with unlimited listening to almost all songs in Napster’s library. But you could listen only through your computer.
Napster To Go, for an extra $5, takes the subscription concept to a new level. You download tracks to your computer’s hard drive and transfer them to a compatible music player. The player must be connected to the computer at least once a month to verify your subscription is still active, but otherwise you’re free to roam.
About 90 percent of the library is available to go, while licensing restrictions block the remaining 10 percent.
To use Napster To Go, which launched last month, you need a computer running Windows XP and Microsoft’s free Windows Media Player 10 (www.microsoft.com/windowsmedia). You download and run Napster’s 10-megabyte install file, sign up for Napster To Go, then start downloading songs to your computer’s hard drive. You connect a compatible player to the computer whenever you’re ready, then click and drag to move songs from the computer to the player.
I tested Napster To Go using a Creative Zen Micro player (www.nomadworld.com)on loan from Napster. It has a 5-gigabyte hard drive — enough to hold about 100 albums — and sells for about $250.
I started with two albums, one for me and one for my 4-year-old daughter, Sara. For Sara, I downloaded all 44 one-minute tracks from the hit TV cartoon character “Dora The Explorer” soundtrack CD. Sara listened attentively to the tracks once but hasn’t shown any interest in hearing them again. I saved myself the cost of buying a CD she wouldn’t want.
For me, I downloaded “The Dana Owens Album” by Queen Latifah. I liked the mix of jazz and R&B enough that I’ll probably listen several times more.
However, there are still some rough spots.
Napster To Go uses a technology from Microsoft code-named Janus. Microsoft wants many music services to offer portability through Janus, and for many manufacturers to build Janus-compatible players. That could happen eventually, but for now the choice on both sides is limited.
The one other music service offering portability through Janus today is a low-profile effort called F.Y.E. Download Zone from Trans World Entertainment (www.twec.com), which mostly operates music stores, including the Wherehouse chain. F.Y.E. charges $14.95 a month, but is hard to find; it’s available only through the Online Store menu within Windows Media Player 10.
The Rhapsody service (www.listen.com) from RealNetworks promises to add portability by July, but it hasn’t yet said how much it will cost or whether it will use Janus. But the company says its portability offering will work with any Janus-compatible player.
There are just 10 such players on the market, from seven manufacturers. They include the Dell Pocket DJ, three models from iRiver and two models from Samsung, in addition to the Creative Zen Micro. Apple’s iPod does not work with Janus.
Microsoft and the music services have yet to come up with clear and consistent labeling to make it plain which music devices work with Janus. That’s something they need to fix quickly.
Some of the 10 Janus-compatible players need to have their internal programming, called firmware, upgraded before working with Napster To Go. The upgrade required for the Zen Micro was still in beta form, and carried the scary warning that it “is not currently reversible … (and) could possibly result in loss or corruption of data, necessitate a reformat of the device or, in extremely rare cases, may render the device inoperable.”
My upgrade went well, but only after a few white-knuckle moments.
There is also the problem of lock-in. If you’ve downloaded 50 or 100 or 500 albums, you would be reluctant to switch to another music service offering portability because you would have to download all the tracks again. Microsoft and its partners need to make it possible to reauthorize downloaded music when switching from one Janus service to another.
I’m optimistic these issues will get fixed, and I even expect Apple — despite some public dissing of the concept — will ultimately offer portability.
We still may want to own the songs that are most important to us, but $15 a month is a bargain for a backstage pass to a concert hall packed with nearly 1 million songs.